In two previous articles, I discussed the case of Thomas Bowers, an Information Technology Analyst who successfully appealed his race discrimination claim and his retaliation claim against the New Jersey Judiciary. Mr. Bowers was also successful on his appeal of his claims that the judiciary forced him to resign by refusing to provide him a reasonable accommodation for his disability, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
Mr. Bowers claims he experienced mental and physical distress as a result of the race discrimination, harassment, and retaliation he experienced at work. His doctor diagnosed him with Anxiety Disorder, and suggested that he take medical leave from June 6 to July 1, 2007. Mr. Bowers’ doctor subsequently extended his medical several times, and ultimately indicated Mr. Bowers would be ready to return to work on October 1, 2007.
On August 30, 2007, the Judiciary warned Mr. Bowers he was about to exceed his 12 weeks of protected FMLA leave. It told him he could extend his leave of absence by using his vacation time, but that he would run out of vacation time on September 6. The Judiciary warned Mr. Bowers that if he did not return to work by September 10, it would consider him to be on “an unauthorized leave of absence,” and he would be subject to discipline.
On September 4, Mr. Bowers’ lawyer informed the Judiciary that Mr. Bowers would not return to work until October 1. The Judiciary responded that it expected him to return to work on September 10, and repeated that he would be subject to discipline if he did not return to work by that date. The Judiciary claimed it had “experienced significant operational hardship during his absence,” and could not accommodate his disability as a result. The Judiciary subsequently fired Mr. Bowers, effective September 10, 2007, because he had failed to return to work.
The Appellate Division concluded that a jury could reasonably conclude that the Judiciary failed to provide Mr. Bowers a reasonable accommodation for his disability, in violation of the LAD. It noted that Monmouth County did not post Mr. Bowers’ vacant position until October 2008, and did not fill his position until January 20, 2009. It is unclear why the Judiciary could not have accommodated Mr. Bowers’ disability by placing him on an unpaid medical leave through the end of September, and allowing him to return to work on October 1. If it had done so, his position would have been vacant for only 3 weeks, instead of remaining vacant until January 20. The Court noted that although the Judiciary claims budgetary constraints prevented it from replacing Mr. Bowers’ sooner, a jury might reach a different conclusion. Accordingly, it found that the evidence could support a claim of failure to accommodate a disability in violation of the LAD.